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Understanding the anti-immigrant mindset

Members of a refugee family from Syria cast

Members of a refugee family from Syria cast long shadows as they walk over the grounds of former military barracks serving now as shelter for asylum seekers on Nov. 3, 2015 in Ehra-Lessien near Wolfsburg, central Germany. Photo Credit: Getty Images

As Britain decides whether to leave the European Union, it is clear that one issue created the greatest source of tension: immigration.

British attitudes toward immigration have been changing for some time, and especially since the European Union expanded to include many of the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, in 1995, 63 percent of the British public were in favor of reducing immigration. By 2008, this had risen to 78 percent, where it has stabilized.

For a country built on a long history of inward migration — from the Flemish textile workers of the 14th century through the Commonwealth workers of the 20th — this change has been surprising and has been attributed to economic unease. But this may not be the case.

In a recent paper, researchers from the London School of Economics addressed the issue that often appears at the heart of public concerns: jobs and wages. Over a period in which the number of people from the EU living in Britain tripled - to 0.9 million in 1995 to 3.3 million in 2015 — there was no adverse impact on British workers in terms of a substitution of foreign-born labor for native British labor. While there had certainly been labor market pain, it wasn’t a result of immigration but of the slow recovery from the global financial crisis.

EU immigrants are, on average, better educated than the native-born population. They are more likely to have a job and to pay more in tax than they receive in benefits and public services. A study of 22 Organization for Economic and Cooperation and Development countries published last year found that immigration boosts productivity growth. Applying the findings to Britain suggests that halving Britain’s immigration would knock 0.32 percent off productivity growth each year. The LSE authors wrote:

“We can confidently say that the empirical evidence shows that EU immigration has not had significantly negative effects on average employment, wages or inequality for British people.”

Looking beyond Britain and the narrower question of EU migration, economic evidence published by the American Economics Association suggests that lowering barriers to freedom of movement could add more to the global economy than any other form of market liberalization, including the free movement of goods and capital.

In research published this week, pollsters Ipsos MORI found that 46 percent of Britons think that the economy has benefited from EU immigration compared with only 30 percent who think the opposite. Less than one in four believe that EU immigration has had a negative effect on local areas. The positive economic arguments, it seems, haven’t fallen on deaf ears.

But asked whether immigration from the EU has been “good for Britain on the whole,” the survey reveals a much deeper division: four in 10 believe that immigration has been positive, with an equal number believing that it has been bad (20 percent either don’t know or think it’s neutral). According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, “more than half of people (54 percent) who see immigration as good for the economy also want to see immigration reduced.”

Whatever happens with Thursday’s vote, a debate over immigration is likely to be at the heart of U.K. politics for some time to come. Opinions are complicated, and not necessarily dictated by logic. But even Britons fearful for their futures don’t necessarily think immigration has come with an economic cost. In a year of turmoil and unease, this is at least something to build on.

Victoria Bateman is a fellow and lecturer in economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University.